God: a Computer Game Analogy
Updated: Aug 19
by Terence Sim
[Play online here: https://supermario-game.com ]
[Disclaimer: As usual, the views here are mine alone, expressed in my personal capacity. They are not the views of my employer or my church. These views are not endorsed by the National University of Singapore, or by the Methodist Church in Singapore.]
I'd like to offer an analogy that allows us to better understand certain key Christian concepts of God, especially in relation to His created world. I will explain my understanding, hopefully theologically correct, concerning these concepts:
Transcendence, General vs Special Revelation, the Trinity, Miracles, Complete and Intimate Knowledge, and the Mystery of Time.
To do this, I will use a modern analogy that should be familiar to most people: a computer game. Any game will do. It can be the cute world of Super Mario, or the blocky environment of Minecraft, or the sci-fi universe of Final Fantasy. But without any human players. Instead, all the characters in the game are capable of independent thought and action, and move through their world with the usual powers that the game provides, eg. Mario can jump, collect coins, grow and shrink in size; flower pop-ups confer the ability to shoot projectiles; green pipes instantly transport Mario to another location, etc. My arguments will not hinge on any specific game, although I may use concrete examples to illustrate. Also, for now at least, I will assume that there is one computer programmer who developed the Game. Let's call this person the Creator, to whom I will also refer as He/Him.
As with any analogy, there are limits. I'm not saying that God is a computer programmer, nor that this world is a computer game or simulation. Please do not derive Christian Theology from this analogy. I am not theologically trained, and where I err, I'm willing to correct my views or point to differing interpretations. I was inspired to write this article in part by the 1884 novella, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin Abbott, which I had read many years ago (here's an animation of Flatland), and in part by the popularity of computer games these days.
And also because I'm a computer scientist.
Here's the setup: the Creator created the Game by means of writing computer code, and then by running that code. All the rules of the Game are governed by that code. This includes the various levels of the Game, the appearance of all the objects and characters, the way they move and sound, and even how they think. However, this does not mean that every character is a "robot" ^^. The Creator can allow a character to make choices. More generally, the Creator can create a framework within which a character, say, Mario, can generate different possible decisions based on what Mario is currently experiencing in the gameplay, as well as on his past memories, and then choose one of these dynamically-generated decisions. In other words, the Creator does not need to dictate every action, but allow each character the freedom to choose, ie. the character has "free will" **.
^^ By "robot" I mean the common understanding that the creature's decisions are rigidly decided or pre-programmed ahead of time. This notion is intimately tied to the notion of "free will", which is a complex topic that I will ignore for now.
** "Free will" turns out to be tricky to understand. Until I do, I will just use the term to mean that "the character is under no compulsion to favor one decision over another".
It should be obvious that the Creator is distinct from the Game. He is not any part of the Game, nor the sum total of the Game, but exists independently outside the Game. He is not of the same substance as any creature in the Game. No creature in the Game is equal to Him; no one even comes close. The Creator is Transcendent.
The Creator does not need the Game to survive -- the Game can level up or crash and burn, Mario and Bowser can win or lose any battle, a game character may even deny the power of the Creator -- none of these affect the Creator's existence. If Mario offers gold coins, he can't bribe the Creator. If Peach makes fruit juice, it won't quench His thirst. The Game has no power over the Creator; instead, the Creator has full power over the Game. In the same way, the biblical God is transcendent, and requires nothing from the world He created. He has no equal.
“To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. (Isaiah 40:25)
General versus Special Revelation
One immediate consequence of Transcendence is that, unless the Creator reveals Himself, the creatures in the Game can learn very little about Him. Imagine scientists or wizards who live in the Game trying to determine the "laws of nature" that govern the Game or its Origin. They may come up with theories for this or that, debate which theory is more accurate, award noble prizes to each other, and even marvel at the beauty, intricacy, and vastness of the Game world. But try as they might, it is impossible for them to see the computer code behind the Game, or gain an awareness of the execution of the code which animates their world. At best, some Game scientists might guess that some Super Being created their world. Other scientists might reject such a notion and propose an Origin explanation based on "billions of years of random chance events" (ie. evolution).
Those who believe in the Creator would no doubt describe Him as "genius", "powerful", and "creative" based on their careful study of the Game world. This wouldn't be wrong, but is woefully incomplete. They would not know what the Creator looks like, what He loves or detests, or characteristics such as faithfulness and patience. Nor will any creature know why the Creator created the Game in the first place. Unless He tells them.
It is the same with God. Studying nature, no matter how hard humans try, will only reveal a general and incomplete picture of God. Christian Theologians call the understanding of God through nature General Revelation. On the other hand, when God communicates directly to humans, say, through miracles, prophetic utterances or written scriptures, He can tell us His love for righteousness and His abhorrence of sin. He can declare His faithfulness and patience towards us, and He can explain why He created everything. This is called Special Revelation.
The LORD passed in front of him and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and filled with gracious love and truth. (Exodus 34:6)
Of course, for those who do not believe in the Creator, there can be no revelation, whether General or Special.
Thus far I have assumed that the Game Creator is a single person. In fact, this is not true. Most modern computer games require multiple people to create. Likewise for our analogy here, the Creator is actually three persons: Designer, Code, and Executor.
It is the Designer who conceives the Game from start to end. He creates the main narrative and all the subplots. He fathers the protagonist, antagonist, and all characters in between. He sets the times and places, delimits the boundaries, and paces the rhythm of the Game. He is the first person of the Creator.
The second person is the Code. He expresses the grand design of the Designer into a concrete blueprint. The Code governs the "physics, chemistry and biology" of the Game. Objects in the Game behave according to these natural laws. Notice I said "Code" and not "Coder" or "Programmer". This is deliberate. The Code is the Word of the Designer, the expressed desire of the Designer. The Designer creates the entire Game World through the Code, and without the Code nothing in the Game world exists.
And it is the Executor who causes the Code to run, thereby bringing the Game to life. The execution of the Code is what animates all objects in the Game. The Code, being just a blueprint, does not do anything. As an example, suppose the Code says:
for x in 1 to 5:
This is just a static description that Mario will jump five times. It is the Executor who runs this Code that actually causes Mario to jump that many times. If the Executor stops work, the Game stops completely. This is how the Executor sustains the Game moment by moment. He is the third person of the Creator.
So it is with the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Again, let me reiterate that I'm using an analogy to describe God. In an actual computer game, the execution of the game is done by the machine, not by a person. I'm not saying that the Holy Spirit is actually a machine, or that Jesus is actually static computer code. As with any analogy, there are limits to how much you can read into it.
This view of the Creator gives us a new way to understand Isaiah 55:11:
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
The word expressed by the Designer is the Code. And the execution of the Code is what animates the Game. The Code cannot be executed in vain; it will always affect the Game and achieve the purpose of the Designer. Likewise, God's uttered word cannot go out in vain, because His word runs the universe. It will always succeed.
A miracle is an unexpected behavior that appears to defy the "laws of nature". And since these laws of nature of the Game are controlled by the computer code, miracles happen simply by changing the code, or by executing different code. Obviously, the Creator can easily do this, since He has full control over the code. The altered code can create behavior that temporarily bypasses the normal "laws of nature". For example, the code can cause an iron axe to defy gravity and float up from the bottom of a river (2 Kings 6:6).
Also, since the passage of time in the Game is also controlled by the code, it is straightforward to alter time in the Game. For example, if the Game code has a day variable, then the passing of one day may be realized by the code:
Game.day = Game.day + 1
And thus, if we change the code to: Game.day = Game.day + 0
this would effectively cause time in the Game to stand still, ie. the day is prolonged (Joshua 10:13).
From a programming point of view, changing the code is not difficult or unusual. Programmers routinely make such changes to effect new behaviors. In other words, miracles should be expected once you admit that God exists, and that He has full control of the world.
Complete and Intimate Knowledge
It follows logically that the Creator has complete knowledge of the Game. The number of hairs on Mario's head may be obtained by running the code:
So why should we be surprised by Matthew 10:30? And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
Moreover, whatever Mario is thinking is also evident to the Creator, since all such thoughts are captured in the code variables. The Creator can read His creatures like an open book. That is why Jesus can assert in Matthew 6:8, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Or why the psalmist can declare (Psalm 139:1-4):
You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue, you, Lord, know it completely.
The Game cannot hide from the Creator anymore than the world can hide from God (Hebrews 4:13):
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
The Mystery of Time
Time is mysterious to us humans. Because we live in it and are bound by it, it is very difficult for us to imagine what life outside of Time is like. But our Game analogy offers us valuable insights.
If you have played any computer game, surely you would have done this: save your game, go do something else, and then come back to reload and resume your game exactly where you had left it. And you can keep doing this, because you inhabit a world outside of the game.
Likewise, because the Creator exists outside of the Game, His "time" is different from Mario's time. The Creator's clock ticks differently than Mario's clock. The Creator can pause the Game, go for a coffee break, and then come back to resume the Game. None of the Game's creatures would have noticed that their world had been paused and resumed. From their point of view, the Game world had been going on uninterrupted.
Even better, the Creator can save the Game at different stages, and resume it at any of the saved stages. Each time (pardon the pun), the Game creatures would not notice anything amiss. For example, let's say the Game was played over many centuries and was saved in the years 1800, 1945, and 2019 (all these years are in Game time). Now let's say the Creator resumes the Game in the year 1800. Then the Game creatures would not have known that their world had experienced 1945 or 2019. They would see the world exactly as it was in the year 1800. And since all the conditions are exactly the same as before, the creatures will make the same decisions again, thereby re-creating the same outcomes and the same history as before.
Let's push this analogy further. Suppose that after letting the resumed 1800 Game run for a year, the Creator decides to reload the 2019 version of the Game He previously saved. The Game would now see itself in 2019 without knowing that it had lived through 1800 twice. Confused? Don't be!
The point is to show how the Creator has total control over Game time, moving forward and backward as He chooses. At no point will any creature notice anything amiss.
This analogy also explains how the Creator can foretell the future: He can simply run the Game forward in time, observe the world, and then resume the Game back at any previously saved version. He can now tell His creatures what the future is like. Note that in so doing, the Creator is not controlling the creatures' actions. He is merely observing what His creatures are doing. Foretelling is not the same as predestination.
Our God has the same power over time. That is why He says in Isaiah 40:10:
I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’
This has been a very long article. Congratulations on reading to the end! I hope this Game analogy of God has helped you understand certain Christian concepts.
Let me again emphasize that I do not claim that our world is a computer simulation or game. We may never know how God does what He does. Perhaps our finite minds cannot comprehend it. Just as we do not expect a dog to understand Calculus, we should not expect human minds to comprehend the grandeur and complexity of God's creation.
Expecting otherwise is just sheer arrogance.
My last statement above seems to suggest that we should give up pursuing research about the natural world, since we don't expect to fully understand it. Not so. On the contrary, I'd argue that we should re-double our scientific efforts so as "to subdue the earth and have dominion over all animals" (Gen 1:26-28). Our minds are created to fulfill this command, and so we should be confident that, despite any deep mysteries that we may never comprehend, we will know enough to complete our mission.
In other words, let us do science with all our might and with all humility.